Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Quince

I look forward to quince season every year, not to make quince jam or the famous Spanish confection, membrillo (which I often do), or any of the many other delicious things one can make with the fruit, but for the heavenly scent that fills my apartment when I have a bowl of quince sitting on the counter. Its perfume is like no other – sweet, floral, fruity, intoxicating. The smell reminds me of that brilliant intersection between summer and fall, when tomatoes are still abundant but fall fruits like quinces and apples make their first appearances, when butternut squashes snuggle up to zucchinis and eggplants at the farmers’ market. You may have to hunt around for quince – they are not a common fruit, after all – but certainly the hunt is worth it simply for their fragrance. Oh, and they taste pretty good, too!

A Brief History

Like apples and pears, quinces are thought to be native to the Caucasus area in Western Asia – probably in what are now Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and southwestern Russia. The Ancient Persians (in what is now Iran) may have been the first to cultivate the fruit; from there, quince spread to southern Europe and the Middle East. In Ancient Greece, quince fruits were associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and with sexuality (more specifically, with women’s breasts). Food historian Andrew Dalby, in Food of the Ancient World, describes the many ways the Greeks used quince: boiled with wine and water to make a type of relish, quince preserved in honey, quince preserved in fat, quince jam, quince syrup and quince wine. Dalby notes that most of these preparations had medicinal uses, and indeed the majority of these recipes appear in medical texts. The Ancient Romans also relished quinces. In the Ancient Roman cookbook Apicius, there are several savory and sweet recipes involving quinces, including “A Dish of Quinces” which includes the fruit cooked with leeks; “Veal or Beef with Quinces”; and “A Sauce for Broiled Tooth Fish,” made with quinces, lovage, coriander and honey. The Ancient Persians also made great use of the fruit in their cuisine and culture. Persian food expert Najmieh Batmanglij, in her book Food of Life, explains that quince were given to brides on their wedding night, as the fruit was thought to have aphrodisiac properties. The origins of membrillo (more on that below) are Persian; Batmanglij says the dish is associated with the Iranian Winter Festival, much like quince paste is associated with Christmas in many European cultures.

In the US, quince trees were once common in colonial home gardens and on farms. Prior to the 1890s, when commercial gelatin was first introduced, the fruit was primarily used as a natural source of pectin, a thickening agent for jams, jellies and other confections. Sadly, quinces have long since fallen out of favor here, US pome fruit dominance now firmly represented by its apple and pear cousins.

Factual nibbles

  • In Greek legend, the golden “apple” that Paris gave to Aphrodite – thus causing the Trojan War – may have actually been a quince.  
  • Fun with linguistics: one of the Ancient Greek words for quinces was melimelon (“honey-apple”), melimelum in Latin. According to The Book of Marmalade, this became marmelo (“quince”) in Spanish and Portuguese, from which we derive the word marmalade. Although we now think of marmalade as preserves made from citrus fruit, the word originally referred to quince preserves.
  • Cooking quince turns the fruit’s flesh from creamy white to anywhere from a light rosy pink to a deep, dusky red. According to food science expert Herald McGee, this is because cooking (in the form of heat) forms anthocyanins, natural pigments that can appear red (and purple and blue) in color.
  • The children’s poem The Owl and the Pussycat (by Edward Lear) mentions quince in the last verse: They dined on mince, and slices of quince/Which they ate with a runcible spoon/And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand/They danced by the light of the moon. (“Runcible,” in case you were wondering, is a nonsense word made up by the author.)

Cultivation

Quinces (Cydonia oblonga), like apples, pears, plums, cherries, almonds and lots of other edible goodies, are in the rose (Rosaceae) family. Quince fruits grow on small, super cute, often-gnarled trees that have lovely, fragrant blossoms. According to the USDA, less than 200 acres of quince are grown commercially in the US. The fruit’s primary commercial importance here is not for fruit, but because they are a source of dwarfing rootstock for pears – essentially, pear plants are grafted onto quince rootstock to produce a pear tree that is smaller in stature, and thus more easily harvested and maintained.

Seasonality

Quinces begin to make their appearance in the market around late September, ending in early November or so.

Environmental Impact

Because they are grown in such limited quantities in the US, quinces’ environmental impact is fairly light. However, part of the reason quinces have fallen out of favor in the US is because they are highly susceptible to a devastating bacterial infection called fire blight, which can destroy pome fruit orchards, like quince, apple and pear. Control for the disease includes sprays of antibiotics like streptomycin, allowable even for organic fruit. (The antibiotics are sprayed on the blossoms, not the fruit.) Certain synthetic substances, like antibiotics, are “exemptions” in the USDA’s national organic labeling standards, which means that they are approved for use even for organic food. For years, activist organizations like the Consumers Union have been trying to eliminate antibiotics as allowable in organics, due to concerns about antibiotic resistance and overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. The good news is that the deadline for use of antibiotics on organic fruit expires in October 2014, meaning that after that time, organic farmers will no longer be allowed to spray antibiotics on organic-designated fruit trees. The bad news is that farmers are still testing viable alternatives. Here is more back-story on this issue from NPR. 

Characteristics

Quinces can range quite a bit in size, from as small as a large apple to super giant, some topping out around two pounds or so. Under-ripe or barely ripe quinces tend to be a greenish-yellow, while ripe quinces turn golden yellow. They resemble a pear with a weight problem, bumpy and round in the middle. The skin is thin and easily bruised and blemished, and before cooking, most quince flesh is creamy white in color, with a core inside just like an apple or pear. They are frequently covered with downy white fuzz that must be rubbed off before cooking.

What to look for

Quinces should be firm when squeezed and super fragrant. You’re unlikely to find a blemish-free quince in the market – it is common to see nicks and scratches in the delicate skin. This is OK – since quince cannot be eaten raw and must be cooked anyway, it’s usually no big deal to pare off any serious blemishes. But do steer clear from fruit with large dark brown or black mushy spots or quinces that feel spongy when gently squeezed. Note that many recipes call for barely ripe quince (more green than yellow), rather than fully ripe fruit (more yellow than green).

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Quinces are high in Vitamin C and fiber, but not much else. The fruit contains a little bit of copper, iron and potassium. Quince seeds and fruit are used in herbal medicine to treat digestive problems and cough.

What to Do with It

The quinces we get in the US cannot be eaten raw – they are much too astringent and sour. (Some varieties grown in Iran and other warm quince-growing areas can be eaten out of hand.) They must be baked, poached or simmered, usually with copious amounts of sugar, honey or other sweetener. Beware: barely-ripe quinces called for in many recipes are extremely hard, so be careful when you’re slicing and dicing.

Cooking

Quinces are probably most famously known for being the star ingredient in the Spanish confection membrillo (aka. dulce de membrillo), but plenty of other European countries have a long tradition of making quince-based sweets. There are the French contignac and pâté de coing (“quince cheese”), cotognata in Italy and marmelada in Portugal. These confections are usually spread on bread or crackers, and are often paired with salty, strong cheeses, like Spanish Manchego. They all likely derive from a similar sweet common in Ancient Persia. The Italians also use quince (along with lots of other fruits) to make mostarda, a savory-sweet condiment made with fruit and mustard. 

Quinces make wonderful additions to apple or pear desserts, as in this quince and apple pie or in applesauce. Like apples and pears, they pair well with warm spices like cinnamon and cloves and with rich-tasting sweeteners like honey. (The fruit is delightful poached in honey or with spices, or even baked with honey.)

In Persian, Moroccan and other Middle Eastern cuisines, quinces turn up in savory dishes as much as in sweet dishes. Paired with lamb, chicken or beef, quince add a fragrant sour-sweet note to savory recipes, as in this lamb, quince and okra tagine or this chicken and quince dish or this delicious-looking Persian quince stew (khoresh). And for Thanksgiving, check out this Martha Stewart recipe for turkey roasted with a quince glaze. Here are five more savory recipes with quince from the Kitchn.

Storage

Store quinces on the countertop for up to a week, or in the fridge in a paper bag for several weeks.

Pro Tip

If you’ve peeled and cut up quinces and don’t plan on cooking them right away, be sure to drop them in acidulated water (i.e., water with a bit of lemon juice added) – they begin to oxidize and turn brown almost immediately after cutting. 

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Membrillo and all of the other quince confections mentioned above will keep for months. You can also make quince jam or jelly – no pectin needed. Or pickled quince!

Recipe

Quince Jam

This is softer, more spreadable than traditional membrillo. Like membrillo, the jam pairs perfectly with salty cheeses, nuts and even with pork and chicken. I didn’t bother with any canning stuff because I figured the jam would get eaten pretty quickly – and it will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month. This recipe can also be easily doubled.

Note: You can stop simmering in the second stage at about 30 minutes and have a perfectly beautiful jam that will be a taupe-y in color; if you keep going for 15-30 minutes longer, the jam will thicken even more and will turn pink.

Ingredients:
5-6 ripe quince (about 7 cups) rinsed to remove fuzz, peeled, cored, and sliced thinly
Water to cover
4 cups sugar (or more, depending on how much purée you make)
12 vanilla bean, split, or 1 rosemary sprig

Method:

  1. In a large saucepan, just barely cover the quince and optional vanilla bean (or rosemary sprig) with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer.
  2. Cook quince mixture until the quince are very soft, about 45 minutes. (You may have to replenish the water from time to time.)
  3. Remove the vanilla bean (or the rosemary sprig). Cool slightly, then puree the quince in a food processor with one cup of the poaching liquid. You should have about 4 cups of puree.
  4. Rinse the pot you used to poach the quince. Add the quince purée and the sugar (if you have more than 4 cups of purée, add the equivalent amount of sugar – you want equal amounts of sugar and puree). Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes.
  5. Bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low (the mixture should be just barely bubbling). Cook on low heat until the mixture is somewhat translucent, shiny, and very thick, 30 minutes to one hour (see note above).

Makes between 1 and 1 12 pints, depending on how long you simmer in the second stage.

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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